Recent news developments surrounding the president of the United States and his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, raise the question of the attorney-client privilege in the United States and abroad. Commonly known under Cameroonian law as “professional secrecy”, the attorney-client privilege is recognized by the Cameroonian Bar Code of Deontology under Section 60 and by law No 90/059 (Sections 20 and 21). Enacted in December 1990, this law organizes the practice of the Cameroon Bar. Attorneys are bound by professional secrecy, a fundamental and primordial right and duty.
In general, the attorney-client privilege represents the client’s right to refuse the disclosure of confidential communications between himself/herself and his/her attorney. The ultimate purpose of this right is to ensure that a person seeking legal services feels secure and free to reveal all relevant information; this is integral to his/her receiving sound legal advice. With this “secrecy policy insurance”, the client is more likely to speak honestly to his/her counsel. Cameroonian law determines the scope of the attorney-client privilege, the parties bound to this obligation, and the sanctions for its violation.
The privilege commences in any circumstance where the client or potential client communicates with the intention of receiving legal advice. There is no need for a formal agreement of representation between the attorney and the person seeking legal representation. This privilege remains effective after the relationship between the attorney and client ends. The scope of professional secrecy in Cameroon is very broad; it covers all matters in the domain of counseling and defense and applies to all affairs concerning the attorney-client relationship. Under Section 60(2) of the Cameroonian Bar Code of Deontology, the following documents are covered by attorney-client privilege: confidential consultations and correspondences between an attorney and his/her client (whether written or verbal), documents and information received by the attorney in the exercise of his profession, and minutes of meeting.
The attorney ensures that the rule of professional secrecy is upheld, and he/she is responsible for any violation of the privilege. Anybody else working professionally with the attorney or members of his/her chambers (whether or not they are members of the Bar) must also comply. This is the case for legal assistants, secretaries, and law students’ interns. If the attorney carries out his/her functions with another attorney, they must all observe professional secrecy.
Exception of the Professional Secrecy
Under section 60(5) of the Cameroonian Bar Code of Deontology, any violation of the professional secrecy is considered an ethical offense. Section 310(1) of the Cameroonian criminal code punishes anyone who reveals confidential information received by means of his/her profession with imprisonment of three months to three years and a fine from CFAF (Central African franc) 20,000 to CFAF 100,000 ($34.50 to $171 USD). Even revealing confidential information with a client’s approval is considered a violation of the privilege. Disciplinary actions for violating the attorney-client privilege can lead to warnings, blame, and sometimes disbarment of the attorney.